Adèle Geras has written more than 90 books for children of all ages, and for adults. Her latest books are Ithaka and Made in Heaven. She reviews regularly for The Guardian and the TES. Here, Adèle writes about William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It.
Adèle Geras on Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell
I first read Time Will Darken It about 10 years ago. I was led to it by Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian who described it as a 19th century novel written in the 20th century. When I went to buy it, I was attracted to it also by the beautiful house on the cover. There are those who like buxom young ladies in shawls on the front of their reading matter; others admire futuristic gizmos and ridiculously hi-tech fonts. For me, a house on the cover promises disclosures of what's going on behind its doors and in rooms hinted at by dark windows. I'm curious to find out.
I found it a little difficult to concentrate on other things while I was reading this book. I became absorbed in a way that adults seldom are, because they haven't the leisure to read as a child does, ready and able to give themselves up entirely to a fictional world. After I'd finished it, I became a William Maxwell addict and read all his other novels. For a time, I was telling everyone, aloud and in print (I wrote about him for Susan Hill's much-missed journal, Books and Company), how marvellous Maxwell was, how amazing that he wasn't better known and how important it was that they read Time Will Darken It at once.
The title is enigmatic and I like that about it, too. I appreciate books whose title you only really understand after you get to the end of the story. In the case of this novel, though, all becomes clear once you read the introduction. This is a short piece by Francisco Pacheco, the 17th century Spanish painter, on the subject of painting landscape, and what he says is fascinating. A passage about preparing the paint ends thus: 'If you temper the necessary quantity of pigment - or even more - with linseed or walnut oil and add enough white, you shall produce a bright tint. It must not be dark; on the contrary, it must be rather on the light side because time will darken it...'
What is true about organizing a landscape with figures applies equally to setting the stage for a novel to unfold. If we're looking at a life, or at a time in the past, we may not be able to see clearly. Things may be hidden and others difficult to pick out for all the clutter that's grown up around them. In this story, which takes a family and sees what happens to it over a stretch of time, I think it's Maxwell's intention to highlight aspects of relationships, emotions, actions and outcomes which might not be noticed in the comings and goings of daily life.
The story is a simple one. Austin King is a respected lawyer and we are told of the consequences to him and his family of a visit from relatives who come to stay one summer. They've arrived from the South to Illinois, which is where Maxwell was born in 1908. His mother died from influenza when he was young and this colours his work. Mothers and children and the bonds and conflicts which spring up between them are important to him. Austin is married to Martha and they have a daughter called Ab. He has a secretary in his law office, the formidable Miss Ewing. He has neighbours and servants, and we get to know the whole of the small, pleasant community to which his family belongs.
Nora, his cousin, becomes besotted with him. He is polite and helpful. His actions are misunderstood. They have repercussions. I'm not going to give away any more of the plot. Rather I'm going to list, as I did in the piece I wrote for Books and Company, reasons why Maxwell is such a wonderful writer.
He's modern and traditional at the same time. He starts us on a narrative journey which, as Nicholas Lezard was quite right to point out, is very 19th century. We have a linear narrative, strong characters described in detail, and values which readers two hundred years ago would not have found in the least strange. And yet, there are modernist flourishes. The point of view changes and then sometimes, right in the middle of telling us the story, Maxwell the writer speaks to us directly. For example, he suddenly lists (and this takes up one and half pages) things you will find pasted in every family album. These include:
- 'two families seated along the edge of a band pavilion'Check your own albums against Maxwell's and there's an eerie accuracy about it, as well as the kind of poetry that lists often seem to produce. It's magical stuff.
- 'the children wading with their clothes pulled up to their thighs'
- 'girls with young men they did not marry'
- and 'a path shovelled through snow'
There are strong emotions at play in this book and Maxwell is not afraid to describe them. At a time when the ironic, the post-modern, the sharp and the clever are highly valued, it's good to read about things which other writers might consider insignificant but to which Maxwell gives appropriate weight: petty jealousies that people don't like admitting even to themselves; unworthy thoughts; secret resentments and the methods we use to cover them up. He manages to describe all these without becoming a bore.
He's a writer who's not in a hurry. The story unfolds slowly, though never ploddingly. There's a lightness in the prose that prevents it from becoming leaden. Anyone in a rush for action, or who longs for one damn thing happening immediately after another is advised to try another book. This one takes its time. We wander through the house. We learn about every corner. Maxwell was writing in an age before television and thought it part of his duty to tell us what places looked like, what people were wearing and so forth. If you're into fizz and buzz and dazzle, this is not the novel for you. But if you're interested in structure, it's a kind of masterclass. It has a shape: a beginning, middle and end. Seasons change and, with the passage of time in nature, there is a choreography that affects the plot and the characters. The point of view moves from one character to the next; we go from interiors to exteriors; we move from one house to another in the same street; and we are reminded again that Maxwell is highlighting certain things for effect, just as Pacheco recommended in the short piece at the beginning of the book.
What determines whether or not we love a novel often has to do with character. Is there someone in the story with whom we can identify? Someone we grow to love? Or someone we hate passionately? In Time Will Darken It, as well as a very sympathetic hero, we have many memorable characters, and Maxwell is particularly skilled at bringing us a child's point of view and creating a child character who is every bit as complicated and fully-developed as the adults in the book.
This is not a novel which will keep you up at night turning the pages to see what happens next. You will not be holding your breath for the next shocking revelation. Things are disclosed gradually. The meaning of words spoken, looks exchanged, and things undone or done badly, take time to percolate through the text and into your consciousness. But when you've read it, you'll remember it. An image, a conversation, a nuance of thought or emotion will have stayed in your mind. And I'm betting that, like me, you'll want to go on and read something else - everything else - by this supremely civilized, elegant and compassionate writer.